The Impact Of Genetic Modification
On Agriculture, Food And Health
An Interim Statement of the British Medical Association
Board of Science and Education
"Evolution is all about assembling the improbable by tiny steps; and not until the unlikely has been reached do we notice just what it can do. Genetically engineered organisms will, like any other creature, evolve to deal with their new condition. It is fairly certain that some of them will cause problems. Low risk is not no risk. The question is one which is universal in economics - will the benefits outweigh the costs?" (Steve Jones, 1993)
Genetic modification involves the insertion of genes from one organism into another to produce altered genetic material (DNA). The technology is being used to alter certain properties of food crops - for example, to make plants herbicide resistant, or delay rotting in tomatoes. As its use has become more widespread and sophisticated, there is increased public concern over the safety of genetically modified plants, within the food chain and within human foodstuffs.
The BMA through its Board of Science and Education has taken sustained interest in the environmental impact of agricultural chemicals and agricultural practices. In 1992 the BMA policy report Pesticides, Chemicals and Health considered the use of genetically modified (GM) herbicide resistant plants as alternatives to the use of pesticides. The report reflected the view of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (published in 1989) that it is "essential that the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is conducted from the outset under appropriate statutory control". In 1994 a further BMA report stated that "The techniques of genetic modification have the potential through application in agriculture, medicine and technology to increase the well-being of people and to promote the health of the population by disease prevention".
The BMA also recognised that "At this stage in the development and application of genetic modification it is not possible to provide any guarantees against, or insurance for mistakes. When we seek to optimise the benefits over risks, it is therefore prudent to err on the side of caution and above all to learn from our accumulating experience". The concern with risk assessment and the environment has been further examined in the 1998 BMA publication Health and Environmental Impact Assessment - it concluded that decisions regarding the environment and health should be evidence based and that where there is uncertainty the precautionary principle should always be applied.
Recent uncertainty over the effects of planting GM crops and the consumption of GM foods has led to some concern in the medical profession over the regulation and safety of GM foodstuffs. At the BMA's Annual Representative Meeting in 1998 it was resolved that:
"This Meeting is concerned about the impact that genetically modified foodstuffs may have on our long-term health and calls upon the BMA Board of Science and Education to examine objectively the scientific evidence and commercial pressures on the issue".
The BMA Board of Science and Education decided that an interim report should be produced as genetic modification techniques are quickly evolving and are the subject of fast moving political debate and legislation. The interim report considers some of the main health, environmental and regulatory concerns that have been raised over GM foodstuffs, and presents recommendations which will inform the wider decision making process.
This paper will focus on the use of GM products in foodstuffs, and does not directly address the use of GM products in pharmaceuticals. GM products in pharmaceutical products are of great potential therapeutic benefit, and are licensed and controlled under the Medicines Act. They are therefore subjected to separate and rigorous tests, including extensive toxicological testing, and comprehensive risk assessment.